Being from the Caribbean, namely the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, calypso music is a part of my identity. But calypso music for us is more than mere entertainment; it is a means of expressing and discussing current events in our families, country and in the greater world around us. For decades calypso artists or calypsonians have prided themselves on their witty cultural, political, and/or sexual lyrics. The most skilled of these calypsonians fuse all three of these viewpoints into one, combining their lyrics with a catchy melody to appease their audience. The Mighty Sparrow, a popular calypsonian since the 1950s, is a master of this feat, and his song ‘Congo Man’ ingeniously portrays crucial goings-on of the era in a seemingly humorous and inconsequential story-line.
‘Congo Man,’ first publicly performed in 1964, generated harsh criticism, and was in fact banned from local airways until 1989 due to its implied content. On the surface, Sparrow’s song tells a story of two white women travelling through Africa who find themselves in the territory of Congolese head hunters. During their travels, a ‘Congo Man’ captures them, cooks one in a pot and devours the other raw. The narrator, supposedly the younger brother of this Congo Man, witnesses the entire ordeal from in the bushes and comments:
‘I envy the Congo Man, I wish it was me I woulda shake he hand,
He eat until he stomach upset, But I? Never eat a white meat yet.’
Modern live performance by Mighty Sparrow of Congo Man
Now Sparrow touches on not one but two social viewpoints that were held in this era. The first lies in the West Indian view of the African man. The choice of a ‘Congo Man,’ as opposed to a Nigerian Man or Kenyan Man was by no means random. This song was written and released during the ‘Congo Crisis,’ (1960-1966) a period of turmoil in the country after the instated Belgian government was removed, leaving the Congo unstable and broken. Reports of uprisings and massacres were rampant in newspapers and whether truth or fiction, stories of cannibalism in the Congo and accounts of the Congolese eating their enemies and captured foreigners such as priests and nuns became the norm. The cannibalistic and primal African Man in the song represents the stereotype and the collective West Indian social view of African Natives. West Indians had disowned their African heritage, and worked to establish a clear distinction between Caribbean and African. Believing Africans to be primitive and barbaric, they claimed their more ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ British colonizers, and calling a Caribbean man an ‘African’ was the highest offense. Just as Cab Calloway used slangs and phrases like ‘smokie’ and ‘kick the gong’ in Minnie the Moocher to portray the social stereotype of jazz as ridden with sex and drug use, Sparrow too characterized his people’s view of their ancestors with his cliché representation of an African man.
The second viewpoint Sparrow communicates in his song is that of black man’s desire for a white woman. It was true at the time that a white or at least lighter skinned woman was more desirable. Not only was she deemed more ‘attractive,’ but a man whose wife was lighter skinned would bear lighter skinned children who would, ideally, be given more opportunities, treated more favorably, and overall be more successful than a darker skinned child.
‘I envy the Congo man
Ah wish I coulda go and shake he hand
You all know how much traps I set?
Until I sweat!
But I never eat a white meat yet’
Lyrics such as these poke fun at the black man’s repeated and often failed attempts at finding a white mate/wife at this time. On another level it represented the cultural view that lighter skin was more attractive. For the most part, the viewpoints expressed in this song were not ground-breaking, or counter-hegemonic, but were simply spoofs of existing stereotypes and commonly held notions. It brought to light several opinions that the majority of the population held, but did not necessarily want to admit. For this reason it was said to be ‘controversial.’ Nowadays this song is a popular fun tune, and its historical content, as well as the two major social viewpoints that unfortunately, in large part still exist in the Caribbean today, are overlooked. However the original intentions of the tune remain clear, this age-old calypso is a perfect example of how music can be used to not only entertain, but to convey the ideals and viewpoints of the people it represents.
Mighty Sparrow – Ten To One Is Murder
Live performance by Mighty Sparrow at the height of his popularity as a musician.